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~*~

There is nothing to bridge the gap between then and now. One minute he is dying--knows he is dying, can feel it with unerring certainty, and it is awful, so frightfully awful--and the next he is here, trapped inside his body--and it is his, of that he is certain--unable to communicate with the outside world.

He remembers hearing someone use the word coma, like dying men wake into comas all the time, but he has no idea how long he has been among the living--no idea how long he spent among the dead. Surely not long, else his body would have rotted and he does not feel rotten, only tired and confused. Charles is not used to confusion.

Perhaps someone resuscitated him, he thinks. Perhaps, against all odds, someone found a way to put him back together, to stem the bleeding before it stopped his heart. He wouldn't have thought it possible, but then...

Erik he remembers, the magenta of Erik's cape--oh, that impossible, impossible man, whom Charles will love until his dying day but who frustrates him beyond reason--catching the corner of his memory. The image is strangely ethereal, as though Charles is watching it in stop motion, frame by frame: Erik crouching in the mud, Erik lifting his head, Erik shouting his name, Erik calling him a fool.

If Charles could control his body, he would undoubtedly laugh. You ridiculous fool, Erik said, What have you done?

Was it so very wrong, he wonders, to trade his life for another? To trade his life for Erik's?

He would have killed you, he said, and Erik--hands red with Charles' blood--countered, So I'm to watch you die instead? as though he could think of no worse tragedy.

There was an argument on Charles' tongue, but he lost sight of it, drawn as he was to the tears in Erik's eyes. They glittered like diamonds.

Don't you dare, Erik said, begging then, and Charles had half a second to marvel at how quickly they set aside their differences, to relish in how marvelous it was to once again have Erik at his side, before the world tilted and the colours of Erik's cape--wrapped so carefully around them--faded to grey.

And now he is here.

A hospital, he thinks, from the incessant beeping at his ear--heartbeat, he knows, steady and even--and the sharp scent of antiseptic in his nose. The taste of copper sits heavy on his tongue.

His body may not work, but his mind does, so he reaches out, letting his consciousness drift until he touches another mind--a nurse, checking his vitals. Charles does not hesitate to borrow her eyes. He sees himself now, stretched thin across the bed, over-bleached blanket drawn to his chin.

It would appear he is missing all of his hair.

Have they shaved it, he wonders. Or is this simply the price; a head of hair in exchange for life. He sees no physical wounds of any kind, nothing to indicate he was ever injured.

His chart, when he reads it, says he was admitted yesterday; that he was found in the hospital, already occupying a bed, and that no one knows where he came from. According to the date, it has been three days since his death. He should be putrid with decay. Instead he smells faintly of sandalwood.

The name on his chart reads John Doe and Charles thinks briefly of changing it, of crossing it out and writing Charles Xavier in whatever flowing script this hand is capable of producing. He doesn't, instead releasing the nurse and continuing to drift.

He touches hundreds of minds, but there is no one in the hospital he recognizes. From his chart, he knows that he is in Chicago, almost a thousand miles from the place where he died. There are no battles being fought here. For a moment, he can almost believe he imagined it.

The fear he remembers in Erik's eyes makes it all too real.

Where are you? he wonders, extending his range, seeking out the familiar pulse of Erik's mind, but either Erik is hidden behind his helmet, or he is too far for Charles to find unaided.

He cannot reach New York, not without Cerebro, so he is unable to touch the minds of his students--his charges--to let them know he is here, that he is safe. He projects the thought anyway, pushing it towards them, content it will reach them eventually, though not as soon as he might like. The effort leaves him exhausted, so he returns to his body and slips back into unconsciousness.

~*~

This is the price, will you pay it? a voice asks.

Anything, another answers, and then there is only fire, pain unimaginable, his entire being seared until he is certain only ash remains.

~*~

He wakes panting.

And discovers he is capable of moving.

"Easy," someone says, and it is several long minutes before Charles realizes the voice belongs to Alex. Alex's hand is wrapped around his shoulder, trying to press him back onto the bed. The sheet, where it touches his skin, burns like fire.

"Get it off," Charles pleads, unable to stop the panic from creeping into his voice.

Alex hesitates, and then rips the sheet from Charles' body. Charles, half propped on his elbows, glances down at his body, but in place of burnt flesh, he finds only pale whiteness. His legs sprawl uselessly across the mattress. He is not completely healed, then.

"Professor, are you okay?" This time it is Sean who speaks, and Charles, whose tension is slowly easing, feels something unravel in his chest. Alex and Sean are here.

"Hank?" he asks, because they are all his responsibility.

"Back at the school, with the children," Alex says, and then, "We've been looking for you for days."

Yes, Charles realizes, he didn't tell them where he was going. He only chased a familiar mind and gotten caught in the crossfire.

"I'm fine. I'm terribly sorry to have worried you, but I'm fine. I do need to get back to New York, however." He means Cerebro, because without it he won't find Erik, and he needs to know if Erik is all right.

He does not tell Alex or Sean this. They no longer trust the man they once called ally.

~*~

There is nothing wrong with him, or so his doctors say. They cannot explain the coma. They cannot explain his presence at the hospital. They are more than happy to release him--it takes only a little convincing--and then he is sitting between Sean and Alex on a train bound for New York, his chair stowed neatly with the luggage.

"We need a new jet," Sean jokes. Alex laughs. They speak of it often, lamenting the loss of their CIA connection. Someday, Charles thinks, but the school is still too new, the future too distant. It has yet to take shape.

There is nothing else to occupy his attention, so Charles closes his eyes and lets his mind drift, ever searching. He does not fully return to his body until they arrive back at the estate.

"You went after him," Hank says, coming down the front steps to meet them as they disembark from their cab. Charles can do little save nod. "It's all over the news. They destroyed that base. Thirty-three casualties."

Charles' heart stops. How many of Erik's people? he wonders, and hates himself for the thought. He hates himself more for wanting only to ask after Erik and Raven.

"I was too late," Charles says instead. He has always been too late, but then, Hank carries the same burden. He nods, a little sadly, Charles thinks, spares a glance to Charles' bald head, and then heads back into the house. Sean and Alex lift his chair between them and follow behind. Charles thinks, not for the first time, that it might be time to install a ramp.

~*~

In the years since Cerebro's destruction, Hank has perfected the design. It hums to life now, transporting Charles over a range previously unfathomed. It is only a matter of years, he thinks, before he is capable of touching the entire planet. He is not sure he will ever leave this room after that happens.

He does not find Erik. Days of searching and he does not find Erik. He finds Raven--she is Mystique now, he reminds himself, though it pains him to do so. He has been avoiding her, but that is no longer an option, so he reaches a tentative thought towards her. She responds immediately.

Jesus, Charles, what the hell have you done with him? she asks, as though she has been expecting this contact--as though she has been waiting for it.

There is no regret in her voice--no lingering hurt--only exasperation and worry. She has moved on since their parting, has become her own person, no longer burdened by Charles' overprotectiveness, or her own lingering uncertainty. She speaks to him as an equal, and Charles thrills to hear it. He smiles, even though he knows it means he has lost her as a sister. Still, he is proud.

I haven't seen Erik. I was hoping you had, he sends back to her, but the statement is met only with silence, her worry bleeding into something more tangible. She fades from his awareness, replaced by someone new.

Charles would recognize the sharp corners of Emma Frost's mind anywhere.

We haven't seen Magneto since the mission. He said something about you and then disappeared, she says. It is clear now who stands as Erik's second in command.

She sounds as concerned as Raven, though her concern, Charles knows, stems from another place. She is not a woman to exist without order. The Brotherhood's ranks are missing their leader. It has unsettled her.

Charles pushes aside the sudden surge of panic that tries to claw its way up his throat. He swallows heavily.

If I find him, I will let you know, he says, and severs the connection.

There is little he can do now save return to the place where it began.

~*~

I'm sorry, Charles. You'll never know how much.

~*~

They protest--of course they do, he has trained them well--but they eventually agree. It occurs to him then that these children--though they are hardly children now, battle forged and hardened by this world they've created--would give their lives for him. It is a humbling reality. Charles uses it to his advantage, and feels only marginally guilty.

They haven't a jet, but Maryland isn't far, and they have a car--several, in fact--so Alex drives, Charles sitting in the front seat, head propped against the passenger-side window. The glass feels cold against his bare temple. Telephone poles slide across his vision, the blur of grey-brown landscape passing so quickly he grows dizzy and is forced to close his eyes.

He dozes.

The base--proving ground, the sign says, and Charles hadn't noticed that last time, too intent on his task to notice anything but Erik's siren call--is not as Charles remembers. When he was here last--a week ago today, he thinks--it was mostly abandoned, Erik and his Brotherhood having decimated it within seconds of their attack--and he still has no idea why they came, what they were looking for. It is a hive of activity now, people--humans, the part of his mind that still belongs to Erik says--trying to reclaim what was lost.

"We might have some trouble getting in," Alex says, slowing the car.

"We won't," Charles answers.

They pass through the gates unnoticed.

It is as easy as it was last time--Charles sat in the back of a borrowed jeep, driven across the base by a sergeant, directed only by Erik's magnetic pull--and soon they are stopping in the same place the sergeant stopped, Alex retrieving his chair the same way Charles made the sergeant retrieve his chair.

He has Alex push him across the lawn that frames the administrative building. The ground, once vibrant and green, is now cratered and muddy. The going is slow.

"It was here," Charles says when they arrive at the spot. When he closes his eyes, he is transported, sitting on this same hill, sergeant standing at mock attention behind his chair. Across the lawn, up a dirt lane that leads into wilderness and training fields, a helicopter is landing. Erik's people, Charles knows, but Erik is not among them. Erik is to the south, near where a line of barracks frame a research facility. This, Charles knows, is their target.

When he opens his eyes, he is instantly displaced, the sounds of battle replaced by the sounds of rebuilding. Alex stands behind him, as still and as silent as a shadow.

Erik is not here. He hasn't been here in a very long time, Charles realizes.

That morning--it was morning, he remembers now, the sun barely above the horizon--he waited what seemed an eternity, sat in the eye of the storm, mind searching until it brushed against Erik's--so long since their last contact that the chaos of Erik's thoughts startled him. Charles Erik said, and when Charles turned there he was, the barest outline of a figure, yet unmistakable, even at a distance. Charles stares at the spot now, imagines Erik coming ever closer.

He could not remember the last time he saw Erik without his helmet. It was a shock to find hints of white at his temples.

"What are we looking for, Professor?" Alex asks, and the image of Erik vanishes, long before Charles can recall the soldier behind him; long before he can think to reach forward to pull a remembered Erik behind his chair, Charles twisting even as he fell, the force of impact stealing his breath.

His sloppiness--his worry for Erik--is what did it, the solider succumbing to unconsciousness even as he fired, which meant the bullet that was never meant to have fired found Charles' chest rather than somewhere less fatal. Too late it occurred to him that Erik could have deflected it, had Charles not so thoroughly startled him with the gesture. He is doomed it seems, to make nothing but mistakes where Erik is concerned.

"I'm not sure," Charles says, but he knows that he has found it even as he answers.

There is nothing for them here save scorched earth and memory. Charles lets Alex lead him back to the car, certain now that he knows where to find Erik.

Chicago. There is a reason he woke in Chicago. It is a mark of how addled this affair has left him that it hasn't occurred to him until now.

~*~

"Why are we looking at apartments when we're supposed to be recruiting?" Charles asked.

"I like to keep a few safe houses. I don't have one in America yet, and I like Chicago.

He is, he suspects, the only person in the world who knows the location of one of Erik's safe houses.

~*~

"Chicago," Alex says when Charles suggests it. "We just left Chicago."

"And now we have to go back."

It is too far for them to drive, so they leave the car in long term parking and board a flight out of Baltimore. On the ground, they rent a car, and Charles has Alex drive around the city until he finds the building he is looking for.

The two story coach house sits in the middle of Chicago's Ukraine Village, and is exactly as Charles remembers it, save perhaps for the addition of a few dozen weeds dotting the front lawn. Erik, he knows, is not one for gardening. It is a wonder the grass is cut, though he suspects Erik has outsourced this chore.

He has some difficulty getting his chair up the cobblestone walkway--he remembers this being so much easier when he could still walk. He has left Alex with the rented car, and if Erik asks him to, he will remove this trip from Alex's memory. For now Charles concentrates on getting to the front door.

No one answers his knock, but the door is unlocked and someone has leaned a pair of boards over the slight lip of the doorframe, so that it is easy to navigate his chair into the house. Once he is through the door, he immediately senses Erik.

"You've installed shielding against telepaths," he says, closing the door behind him. He knows now why he hasn't found Erik sooner.

Erik, who is standing at the top of a set of steep stairs--Charles climbed them the last time he was here--begins his descent. He is staring at Charles like he is seeing a ghost.

"You're alive, then," he says, like he is commenting on the weather. Only his eyes betray his relief, even as they briefly flicker to Charles' bare head.

"I don't know what happened," Charles admits, and there is something off about Erik, some hole Charles can't seem to see around. He squints, even as Erik reaches the bottom step and crosses towards him. From the circles under his eyes, it is clear he has not been sleeping.

"Neither do I," Erik says. He gestures Charles into the house.

Charles does not need to be a telepath to know that he is lying.

They end sitting opposite one another over a chess table, because this is how they've always communicated.

King's pawn to e4: I've missed you.
King's pawn to e5: I've missed you, too.
Kingside knight to f3: I need to know what happened.
Queenside knight to c6: I'm sorry, my friend, I can't tell you.

But he has not blocked the memory. It is there, right at the forefront, as though Erik wants Charles to take it--wants Charles to spare him the telling of it. Charles brushes against it. Erik lifts an eyebrow, but does not refuse him access. There is fear in his eyes--that same fear Charles remembers only too well from the day he died--but there is determination, too, as though Erik has prepared himself for Charles knowing.

As though this is something he has had to prepare himself for.

Charles looks, and is immediately engulfed in flames.

She burns with such intensity he cannot tear his gaze from her, this Phoenix, her power a terrible thing that frightens him even as it leaves him in awe.

A price, she says, but Charles does not know the cost, only sees Erik's nod and then hears Erik scream, the agony of it piercing far deeper than the flames that lick at his flesh. He sees his body mend, feels time unravel as he is transported, Erik at his side, curled in the Phoenix's talon, mind shuttered by his horror.

Charles blinks, and he is once again staring into Erik's eyes, across a chess board that no longer holds pieces. Charles has swept them all aside.

"What did you pay?" he asks, sounding so very, very desperate, because whatever it is it has left Erik a hollow shell of a man, the man before him broken in ways Charles has never seen, but is only now noticing.

Erik shakes his head, but it is too late, Charles has found his answer.

"Oh, Erik. No." Charles shakes his head. "Why. Dear, God, why?"

Erik smiles at him then, but it is a broken thing, a pale comparison of the smiles he has granted Charles in the past--smiles that belong only to Charles.

"I have never had your hope, Charles, or your optimist, but even I know that a world without you isn't one anyone should have to live in, least of all me."

He glances away then, begins the steady process of resetting the board.

~*~

He brings Erik home with him, despite Erik's protests, but this Erik is a shadow of his former self, and easily convinced.

I will fix this, Charles vows, and hope blooms in Erik's eyes, though only for a moment, replaced again by such despair Charles weeps to see it.

In Westchester, Erik occupies the mansion like a specter, looming in corners and wandering halls with neither aim nor purpose. Charles finds him sometimes, sitting at their old chess board--they have not played since that day in Erik's safe house--running absent fingers against the metal of the pieces. Charles has them replaced with wood.

And yet, he is still Erik. He scowls when he finds Charles hovering, tells him to stop treating him like glass. I'm not going to slit my wrists the second you turn your back, Charles, he says.

Whatever else Erik might be, he is a fighter, so Charles gives him his space and intensifies his search.

~*~

It is some time--months of agonizing searching--before he finds the Phoenix. She occupies a young girl, no more than six--too young, Charles thinks--whose powers are still largely hidden from her. The girl dazzles him with her ability to float wooden blocks, and then Charles, against every ethic he has ever had, goes into her head and coaxes the life force that shares her body to the forefront.

The Phoenix is a creature of terrible joy and incredible rage. She reminds him terribly of Erik. She is reluctant to grant Charles' request, but she is still limited on this plane, too newly arrived, and Charles is a patient, patient man.

Why me? he asks her.

You are essential, she says. Her joy encompasses him then. She is filled with such childlike wonder she makes the six year old she inhabits seem aged beyond her years.

Why him? he asks. It is a struggle to keep her contained, to keep her from asserting dominance and destroying the body she inhabits. He will devote his life to shaping this Jean Grey, in penance for what he is doing.

He is a danger. It is better this way.

It is not, he tells her, struggling against her even now, surrounded by dust and stars and the immense vacuum of space. You cannot bargain a life. You will return what you have taken. He speaks firmly, as a parent to a child. She grows sullen. He presses, looming over her until she is cowed by him. In a few years, when she has come into her own, when she has fully realized her power, she will be capable of destroying him with little more than a thought. She does not realize this now. God help him when she does. God help them all.

He will not remain, she says, a thread of wisdom bleeding into her words. Charles acknowledges the truth of her words.

He will not remain, but Charles would not keep him imprisoned as he is, made human when he is destined to be so much more. He may someday tear the world apart, destroying humanity in the process, consumed by his rage as he is, but Charles loves him too much to condemn him to this fate.

The Phoenix flares brightly, challenging his authority, but Charles stands his ground. She withdraws.

It is done, she says, and does not resist when Charles forces her back into hiding.

In an unassuming living room that could exist anywhere in suburban America, Jean Grey blinks at him.

"Did you find what you were looking for, Professor?" she asks.

Charles nods. "I did. Thank you, Jean." He leaves her parents his card, and returns to Westchester.

Erik is already gone. When next he sees him, it is on his television set, standing before the cameras and issuing demands, cape billowing behind him, helmet perched on his head like a crown.

His eyes catch the camera, and he stares into the lens, looking, Charles imagines, directly at him. He does not think he is imaging the gratitude he sees reflected there. Or the love.

At least, he hopes they are not imagined.

END